A Guide to Cantabrigian Literature Through 8 Works

Photo of Bethany Currie
12 December 2016

Cambridge is the county capital of Cambridgeshire, England, located about an hour’s drive north of London and set in beautiful fenland countryside. It is most famous for being home to one of the world’s best, oldest and most famous universities, and thanks to its academic and literary traditions there are plenty of books set in or written about the city, as well as a number of celebrated authors who have called Cambridge their home. Check out our guide to the best books about the city.

Cambridge | Ⓒ Alex Brown/Flickr
Ⓒ Black Swan

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

One of the most famous stories based in Cambridge is Case Histories, a detective novel revolving around a number of crimes committed around the Cambridge area. The book proved to be greatly popular when it was published in 2004, and Atkinson has since written three sequels. A TV adaptation was made a few years after the book was published, although the series was not set in Cambridge.

Ⓒ Arrow

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe

Porterhouse Blue is the story of a porter at a fictional college of Cambridge University. The story explores the traditions of the university and the role of college porters (an esteemed position within the city), and takes a satirical and comical perspective. The novel is considered a must-read for students starting at the university as an introduction to its culture, and it has since been made into a successful TV series.

Ⓒ Penguin

The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

One of Cambridge’s most famous alumni is the actor, comedian, author and all-round British favourite Stephen Fry, and his second biography The Fry Chronicles begins with his years at the university. Fry studied English at Queen’s College, and was a member of the famous theatre group Cambridge Footlights, where he met Hugh Laurie with whom he was to appear in various television shows. For an insight into life as a student in Cambridge, this amusing and witty autobiography is a great introduction.

Ⓒ Pan Macmillan

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

From the author best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is this light and humorous detective novel, set in Cambridge. Adams attended St John’s College, but bases his story around the fictional college of St Cedd’s. The plot goes along similar lines as Doctor Who, and is a primarily science-fiction novel but with comedic elements. Books about Cambridge is known for being quirky, and this novel is no exception.

Ⓒ Alma Books Ltd

Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Following the success of the recent Oscar-winning film The Theory of Everything, there has been increased interest in the autobiography of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife Jane. Her book describes the couple meeting each other while studying at Cambridge University, and the following years spent together living in the area while Professor Hawking conducted his research. Stephen Hawking is one of Cambridge’s most famous residents (he still works at the university in the Department of Theoretical Physics), and this book is a good introduction to life at the university, and the academic culture of the city.

Ⓒ Bloomsbury Paperbacks

The Grantchester Mysteries by James Runcie

For an authentic taste of life in Cambridge, James Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries series is set in the nearby countryside village of Grantchester during the 1950s. The books make reference to a number of famous locations around the area, including The Eagle, the city’s most famous pub. Four books in the series have been written so far, with a planned collection of six. A recent TV series has also been produced, filmed on location in Grantchester and Cambridge.

Ⓒ Penguin

The Reeve’s Tale (part of The Canterbury Tales) by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Reeve’s Tale is featured in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and is set in and around medieval Cambridge. One of the main characters, Simkin, is a carpenter based in the nearby village of Trumpington who works for a real-life Cambridge college named Soler Hall, which later was to become part of Trinity College. The story emphasises the rich and long history of Cambridge, especially its university, which had been around for over a century at the time that Chaucer was writing, in the 14th century.

Ⓒ Little, Brown Book Group

The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles by Susanna Gregory

This murder mystery seriesis set in 14th century Cambridge and focuses on the vital work in the field of medicine undertaken by the university during this period. Other themes explored are the religious culture of the city at the time and the various locations around Cambridge. Cambridge has always been a significant academic and cultural hub within England, and although this is a fiction series, it nonetheless demonstrates Cambridge’s legacy.

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